n.[F., from tirailler to skirmish, wrest, from tirer to draw.]
(Mil.) Formerly, a member of an independent body of marksmen in the French army. They were used sometimes in front of the army to annoy the enemy, sometimes in the rear to check his pursuit. The term is now applied to all troops acting as skirmishers.
Tirailleur means sharpshooter in French. The term dates back to the Napoleonic period where it was used to designate light infantry trained to skirmish ahead of the main columns. Subsequently "tirailleurs" was used by the French military as a classification for infantry recruited in the various French colonial territories during the 19th and 20th centuries. Such units were generally battalion to regiment in size and were commanded by French officers.
Tirailleurs from Algeria served in the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars (1870), as well as the various French colonial campaigns. During the Crimean War the Algerian tirailleurs acquired the nickname of "Turcos" (Turks) by which they were widely known over the next hundred years. The name reportedly arose from comparisons between the Algerian troops and the Turkish allies serving alongside the French and British forces at the siege of Sebastopol.
During World War I (1914-18) tirailleurs from the various African territories served on the Western Front, incurring heavy losses. René Riffaud (1898-2007) was one of them. The Great Mosque of Paris was constructed afterwards in honour of the Muslim tirailleurs who had fought for France.
France made extensive use of tirailleurs in its various colonial campaigns. The best known of these were the "tirailleurs Algeriens" who served in Indo-China, Tunisia and Morocco; and the "tirailleurs Senegalais" (who were recruited from all of the French possessions in West and Central Africa). Both played an important role in the occupation of Morocco (1908-14) as well as in the Rif War of the 1920s. Recruitment was generally voluntary, although a selective form of conscription was introduced in Algeria in 1913 and continued until the end of French rule.
Prior to and during World War II (1939-45), tirailleurs were recruited from the Maghreb (Algerian, Moroccans, and Tunisians), from French West Africa, from Madagascar and from Indochina (Annam, Tonkin and Cambodia). The individual regiments were named after the territory in which they were recruited. Thus "tirailleurs Malgaches", "tirailleurs Annamites", "tirailleurs Tunisiens", "tirailleurs Tonkinois", tirailleurs Cambodgiens" etc.
Until 1914 the Algerian and Tunisian tirailleurs wore zouave style uniforms of light blue with yellow braiding. White turbans, red fezs and sashes were worn with both this "tenue orientale" and with a white service dress of similar loose cut. The West African and Madagascan tirailleurs wore a dark blue parade dress with red sash and fez while the Indochinese regiments wore an indigenous style of blue, white or khaki uniform with a flat "salacco" headdress. Khaki had been widely worn as a hot weather field dress in the years before the outbreak of World War I and thereafter became the norm. The North African tirailleurs however resumed their colourful full dress uniforms between 1927 and 1939 to assist recruitment.
Tirailleurs from North and Central Africa fought with distinction in Europe during World War II, notably in the Italian campaign. The Indo-Chinese tirailleur regiments were disbanded following the Japanese coups against the French colonial administration in March 1945. Algerian, Moroccan and Senegalese tirailleurs served in Indo-China until the fall of Dien Bien Phu and subsequently as part of the French forces during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). Even after the French withdrawal from Indochina a unit of mostly Vietnamese tirailleurs ("le Commando de Extreme Orient Dam San") continued to serve with the French Army in Algeria until 1960.
Disbanding of the tirailleurs regiments
Most of the tirailleur regiments were disbanded as the various French colonies and protectorates achieved independence between 1956 and 1962. In Morocco and the various new African states most tirailleurs transferred direct from the French service to their new national armies. This was not the case in Algeria where locally recruited tirailleurs who remained loyal to France were given the option of transferring to units in France itself at the end of the Algerian War of Independence in 1962. The last Moroccan regiment in the French Army was the 5th RTM ("Regiment de Tirailleurs Marocain") which was stationed at Dijon until it was disbanded in 1965.
There is still one Tirailleur regiment in the modern French Army, which is descended from the Algerian tirailleurs. While these troops are now entirely French, items of the traditional North African uniform are still worn on ceremonial occasions to commemorate the Algerian "turcos" who served France for over 130 years.
As colonial subjects, tirailleurs were not awarded the same pensions as their French (European) brothers in arms after World War Two. The discrimination led to mutiny in Senegal, with many Senegalese Tirailleurs killed in Dakar at Camp Thiaroye in December 1944.
The independence of former French colonies led to the freezing of military pensions for all former soldiers of the now independent nations, while their French counterparts, who might have served in the same units and fought in the same battles, enjoyed pensions that were adjusted for inflation.
While the imbalanced situation strongly hinted at racial discrimination, successive French governments only lent a deaf ear to the complaints of former French Army soldiers. One rationale for the freezing of the pension was that increased pensions would have created an income gap between the former soldiers and the rest of the populations in destitute African countries.
It was only in 2006 that President Jacques Chirac, deeply moved by Rachid Bouchareb's epic movie "Indigènes" gave instructions to increase the pensions of former colonial soldiers. However, more than forty years after the colonies had gained independence and sixty years after World War II had ended, many of the veterans had already died.
- C. R. Hure. "L'Armee d'Afrique 1830-1962".
- Pierre Dufour: "1er Regiment de Tirailleurs" ISBN 2-7025-0439-6.
- French Colonial Forces
- Chasseurs d' Afrique
- Senegalese Tirailleurs
- French Foreign Legion
- Colonial troops